31 May 2015

The Hermit Marshes

The day after the deluge, I saw the aftermath — how the rough paddock beside the railway line had turned into a small marsh, the wrinklezinc water shining in the quiet morning light, the low rushes reminding me of the places I found so fascinating and wonderful as a child and still do. The small marshy paddock reminded me of places I’ve never seen but want to — places where wizened Chinese sages live solitary lives in small huts and spend their days listening to the thin cries of strange birds, fishing for eels and catfish that taste mostly of mud, watching the trickle of smoke from the small fire rise into the low grey sky, drinking tea from small cracked cups with a tea patina accumulated over years, at night watching the moon and eating their meagre meals of rice and vegetables and mud-fish, and just sitting there motionless so anyone seeing them would think they were meditating and therefore must be wise and gnomic. But really, they just sit there.

I want to see those places and I don’t even know if they still exist. Most have probably been drained and turned into productive land. ‘Productive’ — I hate that word. To me, it connotes the taking of something beautiful and wondrous and mysterious and removing those very qualities so it becomes merely useful. It’s like seeing a gorgeous pheasant dustbathing in sunlight in a little clearing in a small stand of scrub in a forgotten corner of a farm and seeing only a meal’s worth of pheasant meat. Productivity would argue for clearing the scrub to grow ryegrass and white clover and get one more stock unit’s worth of grazing, which of course would produce more meat than a stringy old pheasant. This, apparently, would be making good use of the land.

To me, ‘productivity’ connotes the valuing of quantity over quality, and in that contest between quantity and quality, quantity will always win because by its very nature it’s easy to measure; quality, on the other hand, is far harder — and often impossible — to measure.

So, I wonder whether, or to what extent, those exquisite unknown lonely places still survive. Probably they don't, but I’d like to go there anyway. Maybe these words, or someone else’s better words, are the only way to do that now.

I drove on past the idea of marshes and thought about why travelling, meaning the movement, the actual going from place to place, seems so appealing. I love sitting in a bus, going somewhere, and I’d be happy sitting in a bus going nowhere as long as the bus was in motion, going somewhere. While I’m on that bus I can’t attend to important matters — productive tasks, that is. I can’t work in any reasonable sense; I can’t read (at least not for more than a few seconds); I can’t do anything productive in the usual sense of that loathesome word. For a few hours I’m free from the demands of the world.

Maybe that’s why I sometimes prefer buses over trains — on a train, I can almost write, so I think maybe I should be writing. On the kind of trains where you sit stealing glances at the person sitting facing you (who you sense is also stealing glances at you) on the other side of a small, cold table, writing would be perfectly possible if I decided to open a laptop or tablet, but buses don’t offer that option. Handwriting's even harder — far harder. The best I can do is jot a quick, short note or two when the train stops, or scrawl, often illegibly, when it's moving. The little Moleskine cahiers I carry everywhere carry a record of my travels not just in what I've written but in how it's written — when I browse back through them and come across what appears to be written in Arabic (which I neither write nor understand), I know I was on a train or bus.  I've seen people jot notes by hand in a moving bus but I haven’t developed that skill and have no idea how  they manage it.

But it’s irrelevant anyway, because mostly I don’t want to write on a bus or train or aeroplane because I have more important things to do, like looking out the window at the place I’m passing through and letting my mind wander. The importance of these inactivities cannot be overestimated. For me, time travelling is time out.

Having said that, I’ll now point out I have written in aeroplanes. While they still seem like time out for me and I'd furiously resent having to work on a plane, they’re usually so smooth it’s easy to write by hand with the cahier (big or small) on the fold-out tray table. Even that has shortcomings, though, because the person in the adjacent seat (on both sides if I’m unlucky) will inevitably want to sneak a look at what I’m writing, and even if I’d otherwise be happy to share the writing, the knowledge that someone might be surreptitiously reading constrains my writing; in fact, sometimes all I can find to write about is the awkwardness of writing about someone sneaking a look at what I’m writing, which of course makes it impossible to write.

Nevertheless, I can sometimes write while travelling — for example, last year I several times managed to write extensively in the big cahier while flying. I think of that — of writing in an aeroplane while returning from Leh to Delhi (or was it from Srinagar?) — and the ache for India returns, and that raises the paradox I don’t understand: I long for teeming India yet also long for places like those existentially lonely, hermit-haunted marshes, which I find impossible to imagine still exist in India — if anything remotely like those marshes does exist, the fish will not only taste of mud but will probably be dense with heavy metals, litter will line the waterways, goats will gnaw the rushes, and someone not more than a hundred or so metres away will snap small branches of scrub for firewood.

I don't want to think about that, though. I might be wrong and hope I am. Even if I never see the hermit marshes, I want to know they still exist; I want to know that in some almost-forgotten corner of an out-of-the-way part of that old, overwrought land, some small silent sage still sips his tea as he listens to the wind in the reeds and the thin cries of unseen birds.

1. Not 'productive' land — and may it stay this way forever. Leatherwood (tupare) on the Ngamoko Range, Ruahine Forest Park.
2. Not reeds or rushes: snow tussocks along the old, recently re-marked section of the No. 1 Line track in the southern Ruahine Range.
3. Not a marsh (although almost boggy enough in places). This is the interior of the leatherwood jungle that covers the tops of the southern Ruahine Range. Who knows what it keeps secret?
4. Not a sage. Some scribbler in a small clearing in the leatherwood on a cold day under a heavy sky; the Lapsang Souchong tea almost ready.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

07 May 2015

Light and time

The light in the evening looked old, like light from the time when I was growing up on the loess hillsides of Christchurch’s Port Hills with their volcanic rocks rough with lichen, with pale tussocks and small banks pocked with tiger beetle holes, where little owls and hares hid, and finches scattered up into the sky from rickety wire-and-batten fences and long, dry grass; from the time when Birdling’s Flat meant the possibility of geckos. The light looked soft, as if all the edges and angles had been worn off it. Perhaps the wind had done just that. It certainly seemed wild and strong enough, thrashing the trees about, churning the hay paddocks so the seething air took visible form — the wind incarnate. Once, a gust caught the car as if a giant had poked it sideways with an invisible finger.

The light seemed old, and the age carried me back to another time when both my parents were alive and the thought they might die was inconceivable and unbearable. They both did, long after that time, in a time long ago, separated by two decades. The light took me back not just through memories but beyond, to a time before I'd even been born, to a time before any human left a footprint on an empty beach, a time when the only footprints might have been made by moa and birds with pseudoteeth cruised the coast around Motunau Island. I felt the presence of that time, re-entered it even as I drove home through that strange soft light with the wind pushing at the car, and I realised that time is sometimes neither linear nor regular. Time makes no sense — at least none I can comprehend — but the idea of time as something measurable makes even less. Time makes its own rules.

I drove on, not sure where I was and less sure when. Space and time can’t be separated, the physicists say, and maybe they’re right, but if that’s true then I don’t understand why we think of them as so utterly different. Why is it so easy to understand great distance (particularly when it separates you from someone or somewhere you love), and why can I believe that crossing that distance is just a matter of travelling in space — no big deal in theory even if the difficulty in practice drives me to despair — yet at the same time I know so clearly that I can never, meaning in no possible way, cross the time back to the past? Tell me why it’s so impossible to understand how the past is irretrievable and the future inaccessible if space and time don't differ. Tell me how it happens that, moment by moment, the future becomes irretrievable.

I drove on, moving through the old, worn-out light, with the future changing into the past and the past haunting me. I drove the Napier Road towards Ashhurst, through a wild sky scattered with finches from the past and hung now with a hawk here and there; driving through memories of clay banks with tiger beetle holes, a goldfinch nest high in an old willow, herons roosting at dusk and owls starting up with their beautiful sad calls, a hare disappearing beyond the curve of the empty hilltop, Pegasus Bay stretching out green and luminous in the nor’west light of the place I left so long ago, Motunau Island crouching there in the far distance. When the past returns it takes you to another place, and sometimes you know neither where you are, nor when.

1. Birdling's Flat: a long, low, shingle spit that stretches south from the south-western hills of Banks' Peninsula and separates Lake Ellesmere from the ocean. My father told us he'd caught geckos there in his younger days, but we never found any. 

2. Motunau Island sits in the northern curve of Pegasus Bay. Fragments of a prehistoric pseudotooth bird (Pseudodontornis stirtoni — the taxonomy's debated) were found on Motunau beach, opposite the island.

1.Another place, another time: on the flight from Kazakhstan to Kathmandu, September 2014.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor